I learned later that the 1970s had been tough for Marseille. As its port traffic collapsed and factories closed, much of the city's bourgeoisie decamped to nearby Aix-en-Provence. The city acquired a crime-tarnished reputation that deepened the tourism slump that had begun when France's North African colonies became independent, and the hundreds of thousands of French colonials who used to summer in Marseille could no longer easily visit the city. In fact, the only way we'd ended up in the city my dog-eared guidebook described as “fairly menacing” was by leaving it to chance and flipping a coin. Two nights max, we said.We headed to Le Four des Navettes, which was founded in 1781, because my guidebook claimed the navette cookies offered a “unique taste of Marseille” and explained they were named after an unmanned boat that miraculously arrived in the port during the 13th century bearing a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary. I blasphemously thought of them as the Mediterranean equivalent of Nilla wafers, but I loved the bluff nonchalance with which this fabled shop went about its business. Elsewhere in France, famous bakeries were tarted up for tourists with prices to match, but this was a neighborhood spot where the cashier flirted with bakers in floury T-shirts, and old ladies with sturdy thighs and wire shopping caddies stopped in for a baguette. Marseille's lack of glamour charmed me.And unlike the other great ports of Europe, this city hadn't lost all of its brawny allure since the fascinating business of loading and unloading people and goods was removed from the center city to distant dockyards. Marseille still had buckets of what the French call de la gueule, or character, and this is what seduced me the day I arrived with the desperate desire to exchange the sea I'd grown up on—the cold, dark green waters of Long Island Sound—for the storied shores of the Mediterranean. I came from a New England glade with a gilded zip code, but I had an instinctive loathing for any place that was too safe, clean, or pretty.
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